Exceeding Expectations: What We Learned from the Toronto Raptors This Season

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Exceeding Expectations: What We Learned from the Toronto Raptors This Season
USA TODAY Sports

One basket is all that separated the Toronto Raptors from their first playoff series win since 2001. It's what kept 20,000 fans at the Air Canada Centre and another 10,000 outside of the building from shedding tears of joy as they watched their beloved team fall short against the evil Brooklyn Nets in a 104-103 Game 7 loss on Sunday.

A narrow defeat at the hands of an experienced Nets squad in a postseason they were never projected to be in is still something to be proud of. The Raptors made a name for themselves around the league by winning 48 games, securing the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference with an Atlantic Division title and exceeding all of their expectations in grand fashion.

It was a storybook year that no one in or around the franchise wanted to end. Jurassic Park has cleared out, but at this time next year, it will definitely fill up again. 

This season will be remembered as the first step of many in turning the Raptors into a legitimate championship contender. They were never going be perceived as a threat to the likes of the Miami Heat, but maybe now "Canada's Team" will be viewed with more respect and not as the laughingstock it once was.  

Winning changes everything.

What did we learn about the Raptors in 2013-14? More than we ever thought we would. 

Dave Sandford/Getty Images

Fans Can Trust Masai Ujiri

Andrea Bargnani and Rudy Gay—two overpaid, overhyped focal points of the offense whom fans couldn't wait to see get kicked to the curb—both met their fate at the hands of general manager Masai Ujiri.

He recognized the franchise wouldn't be able to move forward with those two still on the roster, sending Bargnani to the New York Knicks on July 10 and Gay to the Sacramento Kings on Dec. 9. 

The team went 42-22 after the seven-player deal with the Kings. Gay was averaging 19.4 points at the time, but his departure freed up more scoring opportunities for DeMar DeRozan and more minutes for sophomore Terrence Ross. 

Did Ujiri expect that to happen? Absolutely not. He allowed the players to dictate what kind of season they were going to have, as he conjured up scenarios based on which direction the team went in the standings. 

Greivis Vasquez, Patrick Patterson, Chuck Hayes and John Salmons came over from the West Coast and bolstered Toronto's second unit, providing Dwane Casey with a certain depth he wouldn't have had otherwise. Ujiri disposed of one issue and fixed another in one fell swoop. 

The problem with ex-GM Bryan Colangelo was that fans focused more on the negatives and less on the positives. Drafting Bargnani and trading for Gay, Hedo Turkoglu and Jermaine O'Neal sealed his fate in the minds of many; there was no coming back from it.

Ujiri's early moves have instilled enough confidence to where he's earned himself brownie points to keep him afloat for quite some time. He could still go down the same path as his predecessor, though. Only time will tell. 

So far, so good. 

Besides, how can you not like a guy who's open enough to shout "F--k Brooklyn!" at the top of his lungs in front of a horde of rambunctious Raptor fans? He's officially a man of the people in the Greater Toronto Area after that explicit outpouring of emotion. 

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Dwane Casey is the Perfect Coach for the Toronto Raptors 

In a story first broken by Doug Smith of the Toronto Star, the Raptors have agreed to a three-year deal with Casey that will keep him as head coach of the team through the 2016-17 season.

Casey has compiled a 105-125 record (.457) in three seasons with Toronto. He finished fifth in NBA Coach of the Year voting, garnering five first-place votes. 

It was a redemption year for Casey, who many believed was on the hot seat with it being a contract year and the team undergoing major changes. Ujiri, who inherited Casey under the Colangelo regime, had this to say about his coach's extension, via a press release on Raptors.com

From day one last summer Dwane has done an excellent job both on-and-off the court. There’s been growth from each player on the roster and the team’s identity of toughness and a desire to always compete has clearly been established.

We’re very excited to continue to grow and develop this team with Dwane as our head coach.

Per Doug Smith of the Toronto Star, DeRozan has nothing but high praise for a man he's grown to admire and respect:

One thing I respect about coach Casey, man, he’s been consistent. He’s been the same Dwane Casey since he’s been here, preached the same thing, told us to stick with the same principles and they’ll work . . . and everything he said came together like he said it would.

You gotta respect coach Casey. He never changed up. You could go in his office, knock on his door, talk to him whenever, you could text him.

He’s a great dude.

Therein lies the essence of Casey and his philosophies as a coach: Stick to your guns, stay true to what you believe works and success will surely follow. 

Being the humble man that he is, Casey deflected all of the credit for a terrific season onto his players after Toronto's playoff run, per James Herbert of CBSSports.com:

I want to commend them because they did a fantastic job this year and made it one of the most fruitful years that I've had in coaching. Even throughout the championship [as an assistant with the Dallas Mavericks]. Because no one expected this group of guys to achieve and accomplish what they did.

He led the Raptors to the ninth-highest offensive rating in the NBA (105.8) and ninth-highest defensive rating (102.4, tied with Washington Wizards), per ESPN.com. They were the only Eastern Conference team to finish in the top 10 in both categories.

Casey also solidified his relationship with point guard Kyle Lowry, a player who once had a reputation for being difficult to work with. The two became a cohesive unit as Lowry turned into an extension of Casey on the court, strengthening their bond through trust and mutual understanding. 

He's not the perfect coach, but he's the perfect one for the Raptors. Casey has earned the opportunity to stick around for three more years and see this thing through. 

USA TODAY Sports

DeMar DeRozan is an All-Star, But Kyle Lowry is Toronto's Most Valuable Player

DeRozan became just the fourth Raptor in franchise history to be named to the Eastern Conference All-Star team, but that still wasn't enough for him to overshadow the efforts of his teammate. 

Even in the very last possession of Game 7 against the Nets, DeRozan lived and died with Lowry taking the final shot, per James Herbert of ESPN.com:

I just told him, 'Don't worry about it. I can sleep at night knowing he took that shot. I can live with it, Kyle taking that shot. 'Don't be down on yourself,' that's all I was telling him. Just being there to support him. I told him without him we wouldn't even be in this situation.

If Paul Pierce wouldn't have blocked his attempt at the basket, we'd forever be praising Lowry for nailing one of the biggest shots we've ever seen.

The Raptors did the right thing by putting the ball in Lowry's hands. He's been the heart and soul of the team all season long, constantly rallying the troops and leading by example. Contract year or not, no one has ever played harder or worked his tail off more than Lowry did in 2013-14.

If you have an opportunity to win a game, you go to the man who brought you there in the first place.

DeRozan was the better scorer, but Lowry was the better overall player. 

Basketball-Reference.com

Lowry finished 15th in offensive rating (118.2) and eighth in win shares (11.7). His 7.4 assists per game and 190 total three-pointers were seventh and eighth, respectively. His 17.4 points and 4.7 rebounds were both career highs, as well.

All signs point toward Lowry re-signing this offseason. Surrounded by teammates who love playing alongside him and fans who would be devastated to see him walk, the writing should be on the wall for him to stay. 

He won't come out and declare his intentions (he's earned that right), but you can tell through his body language and the opinions of his teammates that Lowry will be a Raptor next season. 

In a perfect world, Ujiri would slide a blank cheque across the table and allow Lowry to dictate negotiations. He's that important to the future of this basketball team. 

Lowry can't leave. He just can't.

 

Unless noted otherwise, all statistics are courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and are current as of May 4.

Christopher Walder is a freelance writer who has been published at Bleacher Report, SB Nation, Fansided and several other online outlets. You can follow him on Twitter @WalderSports

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